New Beginnings with Mike Ellis


Toronto artist Mike Ellis is the next artist for the Papirmass art of the month subscription box

Mike Ellis‘s bold, spot-colour illustrations have a mid-century feel that is pleasingly both nostalgic and contemporary. Along with being the recipient of many awards, Mike has illustrated for an impressive list of clients, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Walrus. Get to know him better in the interview below, and don’t miss our gallery of his work.

We are very pleased to be bringing our subscribers a print by this Toronto artist this January. Start the new year off with a surprise print from Mike by subscribing by December 31!

Tell us about your piece for Papirmass (not pictured).

This piece was commissioned for the Sierra Club’s magazine and accompanied the president, Loren Blackford’s message about the organization’s history and deep roots in nature, and their passion to help prevent the destruction of the natural environment. For me,  the image of a tree’s rings really communicated the idea of history. The image of a sapling growing out of a chopped trunk has been with me for a while. I remember seeing fresh-cut tree trunks on the roadside one day, and then a few months later new leaves and branches sprouting from the trunk. This artwork is the perfect example of an old sketchbook idea being given new life as a finished client project.

Illustrator Mike Ellis for Papirmass art of the month club

What’s your creative process like?

I spend a lot of time sketching and racking my brain for ideas. Sometimes coming up with the idea is what takes the most time. However, once an idea is decided on, I am fairly quick at making the image come to life. Sketching often starts in my sketchbook with small thumbnail sketches. I will often take these small sketches and scan them, then work on them and add more detail in photoshop. Once I am satisfied with a detailed linear, I start blocking in the larger colours. Sometimes I try various colour compositions to find the right one to fit the “mood” of the piece.

Where do you create?

I work at 156, a shared creative studio in Kensington Market which I co-founded in August 2017. It is a great place to work with so much happening under one roof. We have 3 floors, a lounge, a pop-up retail space, and even a recording studio in the basement. The studio is shared by photographers, artists, animators, VR designers, and fashion designers. The people are great, and everyone is working on an interesting project. I love being able to chat, collaborate, and learn from all of our members.


What is most important about your studio?

The people.

How do you get into the zone?

Music. Listening to music and browsing the web or flipping through books. A good trip to the library can often break down any creative blocks I may be having. I think it is the ritual of getting away from the computer, putting on headphones, and going to a quiet space. One of the bonuses of living in Toronto is the plethora of libraries we have in the city. If I get bored of one, I can always hop on my bike and try another!

What challenged you the most at the start of your career?

Time management. I found myself working very late into the night most of the time, I think because I was spending a lot of wasted time during the day doing things I didn’t need to be doing. I was also working from home for the first 4 years of my career. Some people love working from home, and I must admit there are certain perks to being able to work in your underwear, but I now love having a place to go that separates work from relaxation.

Illustrator Mike Ellis for Papirmass Art Box, a great gift for artists

Describe a typical day.

When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is turn on my stereo. Whether it’s a record or the radio, I love to have music at the start of my day. I bike to my studio in Kensington Market from Parkdale, where I live. Unless I have a deadline, formatting, or file delivery, and I’m not scrambling to do minor touch-ups, then I spend the morning looking at images, reading, answering emails, etc. I spend most of my time on the computer, listening to music, chatting with studio mates, or grabbing coffee in the Market. One thing I really enjoy about working in my studio and Kensington Market, in general, is that every day is different. There is always something exciting happening.

What is the best life advice you’ve heard?

This quote by advertising legend Tom McElligott:

“Don’t be distracted by anything. The work is what counts. There are a lot of things that can get in your way, that take up your time and your emotional and intellectual energy; none of them account for anything. They mean nothing. The only thing, in the final analysis, at this stage of the game, that really counts, is the work. The work is everything. The years that I spent in advertising I saw an awful lot of people who had the potential to be good lose a lot of their ability to distraction. To politics, to fear, and to who has the bigger office. You’ll get the bigger office, you’ll make the money. Anything you want will happen, but sometimes it’s hard for people to see that when they’re in the middle of it. It looks like it’s incredibly complicated. Well, it’s not complicated at all. In fact, it’s so uncomplicated it’s amazing. All it is about is the work. Finally, if you do the work people will notice and you will get what you want. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.”

The illustrations of Toronto artist Mike Ellis

What is your favourite place in the world?

Berlin. I spent the Summer of 2016 there. Something about Berlin feels so familiar, yet very foreign at the same time. I met some incredible people, spent a lot of time in their beautiful parks, and always felt at ease. I can’t wait to go back there next Summer!

What have you learned about yourself through being an artist?

I have learned many things, though the most important one has been independence; learning to trust myself and my instincts. The longer I’ve worked as an illustrator, the more I’ve learned to follow my gut. Another important one has been how to discover new ideas. I have learned how to be an open book and let the world flow through me.

Mike Ellis is our January 2018 artist.
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Like contemporary illustration? Check out the art of Matt Harrison CloughSandi Falconer, and, for a mid-century twist, Vikki Wiercinski.